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Tag: "labor"

The Verizon Strike Continues

[ 23 ] May 19, 2016 |

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The Verizon strike continues without an end in sight.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is baffled. Recently, he walked up to a picket line and told striking workers, “This makes no sense to anybody. To be honest, I’m not sure why you’re out here.”

Well, it makes sense to me. Let me explain why I’ve joined nearly 40,000 workers on strike from Massachusetts to Virginia.

For the past 16.5 years, I’ve worked as a Customer Service Representative at Verizon’s Customer Sales and Service office in Bloomsburg, PA. I take calls from customers and handle everything from setting up payment to transferring telephone service. I love my job. My mom is a Verizon retiree, and our family is proud to be part of the team that has made this company so successful.

Yet Verizon is treating us like nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet. The company is planning to close our office and relocate us to Scranton without any consideration of the working families who have put down roots in Bloomsburg. That’s about 65 miles away, or a three to four hour commute every day.

That’s not only a lot of time in the car, but a lot of time away from my family. I have two stepsons, ages 11 and 15. I help them with homework every night, and you can find me cheering at every one of their swim meets and after-school events. Commuting to Scranton means I would be gone before the kids got up and maybe home for an hour before they go to bed — if I’m lucky. I already work a lot of overtime, as much as seven hours each week, because we’re so understaffed. Sometimes, Verizon asks us to work weekends.

I can’t simply pack up my entire life and move to Scranton. My husband and I have joint custody of our boys, which means we can’t just move them out of their school district. Given the choice between giving up custody and commuting, I’ll always choose commuting. We’re looking after my husband’s mother, who recently had open-heart surgery and can’t drive. My mother, who lives just a few miles from me, also needs our help getting to doctor appointments and the grocery store. This is what family does. We’re each other’s strength. We lean on and support one another.

Obviously none of those things matter to Verizon executives. Part of the issue is also outsourcing American jobs overseas, which Verizon is doing as fast as it can.

The two unions involved, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, say they cannot accept Verizon proposals that would allow additional outsourcing of call center workers to the Philippines and Mexico, greater use of nonunion contractors, and the assignment of employees to other cities for up to two months at a time.

When one of the strike leaders went to the Philippines to visit one of the call centers, he found out real fast how intimidation and violence are used with overseas workers, a story the above link starts with. Of course, Verizon won’t take responsibility because they naturally enough use contractors instead of directly employ the Filipino workers. The strike is having some economic impact and Verizon stock prices are falling because of declining orders for its Fios product, directly related to the strike. This is a good thing. The Obama administration is now getting involved. Normally, federal interference worries me and it still does here, but I certainly have more faith in Tom Perez than any Secretary of Labor in my lifetime.

In any case, give the strikers a Solidarity Honk as you drive by, if nothing else.

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Wendy’s Boycott

[ 130 ] May 18, 2016 |

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On the issue of consumer boycotts, the general rule should be that if affected workers are calling for it, then it’s something we should support (the UFW grape boycott) and if it’s consumers calling for it without consulting the workers, we should probably find out what the workers think about it first (people saying we shouldn’t buy clothes from Bangladesh when the workers there say that doesn’t help them). So therefore I endorse the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ call for a boycott against Wendy’s, the only one of the 5 largest fast food chains not to sign on to the CIW’s Fair Food Program and a chain that has switched to incredibly exploitative tomato suppliers in Mexico after that program was implemented throughout Florida. The CIW has done this once before, a successful boycott that forced Taco Bell to join the program and set off the rush of all the other big fast food companies except Wendy’s also agreeing.

The CIW recently picked up a major endorsement of its Wendy’s boycott from the Presbyterian Church, which was also a critical supporter in the Taco Bell fight.

But the church’s support for the Fair Food movement extends well beyond the Wendy’s campaign. Indeed, the PC(USA) was among the first to endorse the Taco Bell boycott back in 2002, far before the Coalition had won agreements with now 14 corporations and before those agreements had made possible the implementation of the Fair Food Program. The church’s unwavering support was catalytic, generating endorsements from many other religious denominations for the boycott over the years and dramatically expanding the base of committed consumers. With its Louisville headquarters just across town from those of Taco Bell parent company Yum! Brands, the PC(USA) engaged executives, hosted massive rallies, animated and mobilized thousands of its members, and its representatives served as a guarantor of the CIW talks of that led to the first-ever Fair Food agreement in 2005.

By answering farmworkers’ invitation to work in partnership, the PC(USA) played a crucial role in the realization of the simple — but then seemingly improbable — vision cast by farmworkers: an agricultural industry free from abuse and exploitation. Fourteen years and fourteen agreements with corporations later, the farmworker-designed Fair Food Program is transforming the day-to-day working conditions of tens of thousands of farmworkers — not only here in Florida tomato fields, where the Program began, but now also in Florida strawberries and in six northern states.

“For so many years the PC(USA) has acted with fortitude and love in the Campaign– standing with us through thick and thin, speaking out consistently and courageously, and matching their words with deeds,” said CIW’s Gerardo Reyes Chavez. “Together, we know that it is not a matter of if Wendy’s will join the Fair Food Program, it is only a matter of when. And with the church’s support, we hasten the inevitability of that day.”

And unlike many other boycotts, Wendy’s actually is the only fast food chain I ever eat at, when I am on the road and need a fast meal. So this one actually is going to force me to find other options. Not McDonald’s though. Because really, who likes a burger that tastes like nothing?

Labor-Environmentalist Rift in the Democratic Party? Not Really.

[ 27 ] May 18, 2016 |

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The New York Times had a piece on the supposed rift in Democratic Party get out the vote efforts over the party embracing the fight against climate change. I need to excerpt this in some length for you:

Two of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies, labor and environmentalists, are clashing over an effort to raise tens of millions of dollars for an ambitious voter turnout operation aimed at defeating Donald J. Trump in the November election.

The rift developed after some in the labor movement, whose cash flow has dwindled and whose political clout has been increasingly imperiled, announced a partnership last week with a wealthy environmentalist, Tom Steyer, to help bankroll a new fund dedicated to electing Democrats.

That joint initiative enraged members of the nation’s biggest construction unions, already on edge about the rising influence of climate-change activists. The building-trades unions view Mr. Steyer’s environmental agenda as a threat to the jobs that can be created through infrastructure projects like new gas pipelines.

The dispute, laid bare in a pair of blistering letters sent on Monday to Richard L. Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., underscored the tensions between the two pillars of the Democratic coalition.

For decades, organized labor was among the most powerful forces on the left, financing Democratic candidates and reliably delivering working-class votes, and political foot soldiers, for the party in crucial states and districts.

But with blue-collar white voters shifting to the Republican Party and Democrats growing more reliant on higher-income voters and liberal donors like Mr. Steyer, environmental activists are increasingly muscling out unions.

The friction is not just confined to the Democratic Party: The labor movement itself is changing. As manufacturing has declined, power has flowed away from the unions representing factory and construction workers and toward public- and service-sector workers. The unions that formed the alliance with Mr. Steyer included the two largest teachers’ unions and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The goal of the new voter turnout “super PAC,” announced last week with an initial goal of raising $50 million, was to ensure that liberal groups did not duplicate their efforts, as had happened in some elections. Some unions were asked to give as much as $1 million. Mr. Steyer, founder of the advocacy group NextGen Climate, announced that he would give $5 million and said it was “highly likely” other unions would participate.

But Mr. Steyer has opposed oil and gas projects like the Keystone pipeline, and the construction unions assailed the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s willingness to make common cause with him as an abandonment of their members and the federation’s principles.

In one of the two letters sent on Monday, presidents of seven of the nation’s biggest construction unions threatened to boycott the new get-out-the-vote effort, called For Our Future PAC.

“It saddens us that the very labor movement we have fought for and supported for over a century seems to have lost sight of its core mission and has moved away from us and our membership in the interest of headline-grabbing political expediency,” wrote the leaders of the operating engineers, plumbers, elevator constructors, roofers, laborers, plasterers, and heat and frost insulators.

In a separate and even more harshly worded letter to Mr. Trumka, the president of the 500,000-member laborers union, Terry O’Sullivan, called the partnership a “politically bankrupt betrayal” of union members. “We object to the political agenda of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. being sold to a job-killing hedge fund manager with a bag of cash,” he wrote.

There’s a few things going on here.

First, note that this is really a division within the labor movement, not between labor and environmentalists. What will the labor movement look like in 5 years, 10 years, 25 years? Will it be a few holdouts in the skilled trades or will it organize a mass of workers? Will it be part of a broad-based progressive coalition or will it focus just on the economic well-being of a few members? These are the questions that are at the center of the divide you read about here. On one hand you have LIUNA. On the other, you have AFSCME, NEA, and AFT (I really wish SEIU was on board here).

This is related to changes in the labor movement over the past four decades. What the CIO did was undermine the building trades’ domination over the labor movement. But even though the rise of public sector unionism has to some extent replaced it, the loss of the giant and generally progressive industrial unions like the UAW (now only the 11th largest union in the country) and USWA has left a vacuum that the building trades were more than happy to fill. So what you have in the labor movement, other than remnant industrial unions, are the often very politically conservative (although not universally so) building trades that have been conservative for a century or more and the public sector unions that really operate with very different classes (and races) of workers and that sometimes really have very little in common with a union like the Laborers. You have really working class people on one hand and you have teachers and govenrment employees on the other. That doesn’t mean that public sector unionism is a middle-class movement, but it is a different sort of worker, by and large, than who the Laborers represent. That’s the real story here, not some theoretical divide in Democratic GOTV efforts, which, let’s face it, the building trades aren’t that great on anyway. If some of these unions actually endorsed Trump because Hillary Clinton wants to fight climate change, well many of their members were probably were going to vote Trump anyway.

Second, LIUNA president Terry O’Sullivan is a bully. O’Sullivan has been absolutely abysmal on these issues for years. He has bullied other unions who have stood up to say we need to fight climate change. He has bullied unions who have been neutral or even suggested that maybe this should be an issue to consider. He is bullying unions with this letter. He is a dead-ender on environmental issues. Sadly, O’Sullivan genuinely believes that environmentalism costs unions jobs. While I wouldn’t quite call O’Sullivan a bad actor here, he legitimately does not seem to think that allying with other progressive organizations matters. Now, I understand that his membership needs work, but he has turned sharply to the right on this issue. The other unions involved in this are basically irrelevant, having very small memberships. I’ve never even heard of the International Union of Elevator Constructors. Also, to his credit, Richard Trumka has been very smart on dealing with this issue, largely by letting O’Sullivan yell and scream and then doing nothing of note to back him up.

Third, and I don’t want to overstate this issue, but O’Sullivan does have a point about the billionaire control of the party’s direction. Here he is channeling the same kind of discomfort that has led to the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. In a post-Citizens United world, someone like Tom Steyer automatically gets a bigger say in party policymaking. On the other hand, climate change is very much a working-class issue. It might not be an issue for LIUNA, but it is a huge issue for the poor around the nation and the world. That alone should be more than enough to support the agenda, not only of Steyer, but of AFSCME and AFT.

In the end, I don’t think anyone should make too much of this. The labor movement has basically always been divided on various policy issues. Sometimes, unions have left the AFL entirely, whether to organize industrially or because the federation was too conservative or because of whatever reason Andy Stern created Change to Win. Occasionally, some of the most conservative unions have endorsed Nixon or Reagan. Among them was PATCO in 1980. That worked out well. If LIUNA isn’t going to join the Democratic GOTV effort, well, I’d rather take AFSCME’s effort on that any day.

Amazon and Unions

[ 12 ] May 17, 2016 |

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If Uber is proving fertile ground for labor organizing, for Amazon, it’s been a lot harder, thanks in no small part to an already revved-up anti-union campaign that includes managers openly lying to workers and intimidating them in one-on-one meetings.

Non-Compete Agreements

[ 73 ] May 17, 2016 |

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I’ve talked about the injustice of non-compete agreements at the lower end of the labor market a few times before. It’s worth revisiting the point once again to note its ubiquity and the utter injustice of it.

A recent White House report found that 18% of American workers are currently restricted by non-compete clauses. If you’ve never signed one–or even if you have and had no idea what it was–a non-compete is a legal agreement that prevents an employee from leaving a job at one company and taking a similar one with a competing company, for a specified period of time.

Of the workers who have signed non-competes, fewer than half say they had access to trade secrets that a potential rival company could take advantage of. What’s more, 37% of workers say they have signed non-compete agreements at some point in their careers.

While engineering and computer/mathematical occupations have the highest prevalence of non-competes, the agreements aren’t exclusive to highly-skilled professions. For instance, 15% of workers without four-year college degrees are subject to non-competes, while 14% of employees earning less than $40,000 a year have signed a non-compete. That’s despite the fact that employees in both sectors are about half as likely to possess trade secrets than more highly educated and higher-earning counterparts in the work force.

Of course the most famous example of this is Jimmy John’s, which clearly is concerned about it’s $7.50 an hour employees revealing deep secrets when they go work for Subway later. Or, as is certainly the case, the point is to control workers and nothing more.

First Step toward Unionizing Uber?

[ 18 ] May 16, 2016 |

George, 35, protests with other commercial drivers with the app-based, ride-sharing company Uber against working conditions outside the company's office in Santa Monica, California June 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT TRANSPORT CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3VKJ9

Since we’ve been talking about SEIU’s now failed deal with Airbnb, this is also very interesting:

Uber announced an agreement on Tuesday with a prominent union to create an association for drivers in New York that would establish a forum for regular dialogue and afford them some limited benefits and protections — but that would stop short of unionization.

The association, which will be known as the Independent Drivers Guild and will be affiliated with a regional branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, is the first of its kind that Uber has officially blessed, although Uber drivers have formed a number of unsanctioned groups in cities across the country.

“We’re happy to announce that we’ve successfully come to agreement with Uber to represent the 35,000 drivers using Uber in New York City to enhance their earning ability and benefits,” said James Conigliaro Jr., the guild founder and assistant director and general counsel at the International Association of Machinists District 15, which represents workers in the Northeast.

The agreement is Uber’s latest attempt to assuage mounting concerns from regulators and drivers’ groups about the company’s labor model, which treats drivers as independent contractors. That model helps Uber keep its labor costs low, but it excludes drivers from coverage by most labor and employment laws, such as those that require a minimum wage and overtime.

That has spurred public disagreements, and many drivers have organized in unofficial groups to gain more rights. The prospect of unionization has loomed at times; lawmakers in Seattle voted last year to approve a bill allowing drivers for Uber and other ride-hailing apps to form unions.

In response, Uber, which is based in San Francisco, has been striking deals to tamp down the problems — with the proviso that the company be able to continue classifying its drivers as contractors and stop short of allowing drivers to unionize.

No doubt some will accuse the Machinists of selling workers short:

The machinists union has also indicated that for the duration of the five-year agreement, it will refrain from trying to unionize drivers, from encouraging them to strike and from waging campaigns to have them recognized as employees rather than independent contractors.

“It’s important to have immediate assistance in the industry and this is the structure that provides that,” said Mr. Conigliaro.

He emphasized, however, that drivers did not waive any labor rights by joining the guild, and that if Uber drivers were found to be employees at any point during the agreement, the union could try to unionize the drivers at their request.

Sounds pretty unstable to me. I think this is probably a good first step toward eventual unionization, even if it takes 5 years. In any case, the sharing economy is not going to go away. I’d rather move toward unionizing those workers than not.

We Need Unions. They Don’t Necessarily Have to Be in Manufacturing

[ 38 ] May 13, 2016 |

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This is an excellent point by Ben Casselman.

Why do factory workers make more in Michigan? In a word: unions. The Midwest was, at least until recently, a bastion of union strength. Southern states, by contrast, are mostly “right-to-work” states where unions never gained a strong foothold. Private-sector unions have been shrinking across the country for decades, but they are stronger in the Midwest than in most other parts of the country. In Michigan, 23 percent of manufacturing production workers were union members in 2015; in South Carolina, less than 2 percent were.2

Unions also help explain why the middle class is healthier in the Midwest than in the Southeast, where manufacturing jobs have been growing rapidly in recent decades. A new analysis from the Pew Research Center this week explored the state of the middle class in different parts of the country by looking at the share of households making between two-thirds and double the national median income, after controlling for the local cost of living. In many Midwestern cities, 60 percent or more of households are considered “middle-income” by this definition; in some Southern cities, even those with large manufacturing bases, middle-income households are now in the minority.

Even in the Midwest, however, unions are weakening and the middle class is shrinking. In the Indianapolis metro area, where the Carrier plant Trump talks about is located, the share of households in the middle tier of earners has shrunk to 54.8 percent in 2014 from 58.9 percent in 2000. And unlike in some parts of the country, the decline in the middle class there has been primarily driven by people falling into the lower tier of earners, not moving up. The Carrier plant, where workers make more than $20 an hour, is unionized.

But this much is clear: For all of the glow that surrounds manufacturing jobs in political rhetoric, there is nothing inherently special about them. Some pay well; others don’t. They are not immune from the forces that have led to slow wage growth in other sectors of the economy. When politicians pledge to protect manufacturing jobs, they really mean a certain kind of job: well-paid, long-lasting, with opportunities for advancement. Those aren’t qualities associated with working on a factory floor; they’re qualities associated with being a member of a union.

When Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or anyone call to bring back manufacturing jobs per se, what they are saying is primarily that they want good paying jobs for working class Americans again. And where those good paying jobs exist, like at the Carrier plant, they need to remain there. But the reason that we think that manufacturing jobs pay well is because a century of union struggles. As we can see when those manufacturing jobs go overseas, just because you work in manufacturing doesn’t mean you have a good job. What you have is usually a hot, dangerous, exploitative job where you have no rights and that takes very little brain power. The workers of Bangladesh, Honduras, and China could tell you that just because you have a manufacturing job does not mean you have a good life. So could the workers in Lordstown in 1972.

What made that palatable to American workers after 1935 was that they could unionize those factories and thus give their lives dignity. That legacy is still with us as manufacturing still usually pays better than fast food. But there’s nothing inherently more dignified in working in a timber mill than there is flipping burgers. The difference is that we don’t see those jobs as jobs that should be paid well and should be unionized. Popularly, they are seen as entry level jobs. But the woman in the chain coffee shop where I am writing this post is in her 40s and is probably making not much more than minimum wage, as are so many service industry workers. Those jobs should be union jobs too. They should make as much as steel workers made in 1965 or whatever. Manufacturing is never coming back to the United States in 1965 numbers. That’s for a number of reasons. Globalization is not going to put back into a box. And what jobs do come back are going to be heavily automated. This we know.

That doesn’t mean that we should ignore manufacturing. Whether in the U.S. or Honduras or Bangladesh, the goal needs to be that workers of the world make enough money to live a good life, have a say over their conditions of work, do not get exposed to pollution, and work in safe workplaces, among other things. That happens only with unions. And in the current globalized world with modern trade agreements, it happens with workers and citizens having access to the new legal systems developed to protect corporate rights and it happens with companies be held legally accountable for their supply chains.

One other critical point here, which is that manufacturing nostalgia is also nostalgia for the age of the white male single breadwinner. And while I support jobs that pay enough to support a family, there’s definitely social and racial problems here and there’s no question that these issues animate the nostalgia people feel for these jobs.

But whatever the job, wherever it is, people live dignified lives if they have unions. If they don’t have unions, their lives are worse. That’s why companies are engaging in extreme capital mobility, creating extralegal courts to protect their rights, using opaque supply chains, putting long-term temp workers on the same workplace floors as unionized workers, etc. The goal is to repeal workers’ gains of the last century.

Our goal therefore needs to be to move the gains of the last century onto the jobs of the new century while doing what we can to ensure that wherever companies move their production that those gains will also be achievable by the workers of the world. Until we do that, our dignity will be under constant threat. But fundamentally, it doesn’t really matter whether the jobs is in a steel mill, a hamburger joint, or teaching. All workers must have good wages and unions.

North Carolina at Its Finest

[ 37 ] May 9, 2016 |

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North Carolina is great at two things these days. One is rampant labor exploitation. The other is horrendous wingnut state legislators. I wonder if we can combine those issues? Of course we can.

Seven former workers at Jackson Farming Company, the Sampson County farm owned by State Senator Brent Jackson, have filed a lawsuit in federal court against the farm, Jackson, and his son Rodney alleging gross violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act, and are seeking unpaid wages and damages.

Former worker José Alberto Aguilera-Hernandez says that Rodney Jackson confronted him on October 27, 2015, demanding that he pay $2,400 to replace a gas pump piece broken during a workplace accident.

Aguilera-Hernandez refused, was fired on the spot, and was forced to leave the farm.

Jackson then withheld back wages from the previous week’s work. Aguilera-Hernandez, a worker on an H2A visa from Mexico, was forced to solicit help from a local storeowner to get back home. The plaintiffs in the case say that farm employees threatened them to try to get them to drop the lawsuit, and after they went forward, were refused employment. With the way the H2A program works, Farm Labor Organizing Committee spokeswoman Briana Kemp says, the worker has to be formally requested by a grower in order to be brought to work in the U.S.

“I couldn’t believe he would treat another human being this way,” Aguilera-Hernandez said in a statement. “He knows I don’t know anyone here and don’t have any way of finding a place to stay or a way home.”

This is the kind of person who leads North Carolina. It’s a wonder the state has become a national outrage. I will also state once again that guestworker program are almost universally a disaster for worker rights.

SEIU-AFSCME Merger?

[ 10 ] May 8, 2016 |

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Now this is certainly interesting.

The leaders of two of the nation’s biggest, most powerful labor unions — the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — are completing a plan that calls for unusually close cooperation in political campaigning, organizing and bargaining in states and cities across the United States.

The effort begins a process that could lead to a merger of the two organizations, an outcome that would create the nation’s largest labor union, with some 3.6 million members.

“While we recognize the differences in culture and structure between our respective organizations and the divisions that have hampered us in the past, the times demand that we build on our common purpose,” states a resolution the unions are expected to approve. It cites challenges like political attacks on organized labor, growing income inequality and deteriorating workplace conditions.

The document adds that the two unions will consider ways to step up the collaboration, including a formal merger.

The resolution — which was adopted by the Service Employees International Union board on Thursday and was expected to be considered by the American Federation board in June — also would need to be ratified at conventions the unions have scheduled for this year.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has 1.6 million members, most of whom are government workers. The Service Employees International Union has approximately two million members and is split nearly evenly between workers in the private and public sectors. About 80 percent of the unions’ membership is in roughly a dozen states, including New York, California and Illinois.

A merger would have some upsides and lead to a whole lot of questions. First, the two unions would stop arguing over who gets to organize who, since they both work in the public sector. This would be a positive. They would combine resources to be a huge power within the Democratic Party. It could come closer to uniting the House of Labor than anything in a long time. Of course, one supposes that would also include SEIU abandoning the now pointless Change to Win and rejoining the AFL-CIO. I think that would make a lot of sense. The Andy Stern era is long over and since Change to Win was his baby, it wouldn’t surprise me to see current SEIU leadership being willing to end it. So that’s one question. Another is how the two cultures would work together. Most union mergers consist of a big union taking over a declining union. When the union I wrote about in Empire of Timber, the International Woodworkers of America, was no longer viable in the face of widespread plant closings, it merged with the International Association of Machinists and became part of that union’s culture. But that’s not the case here. And since SEIU is a different kind of union than most, the merging of the union cultures would be a real challenge.

I don’t think this merger is that close to happening. This would be like a large corporate merger, except that the unions would have to care about what happened to the redundant workers. There’s a lot to work out. But if and when it does, it will make for one powerful organization with a whole lot of resources behind it. These developments are definitely worth watching.

Child Labor in Tobacco

[ 16 ] May 7, 2016 |

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The tobacco companies persist in employing children to harvest tobacco. Not in Malawi and China. In Virginia and North Carolina.

Various North Carolina farmers partnered with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company illegally hired children under 13 years old to harvest their tobacco crops, a report released Wednesday stated.

The recent audit commissioned by the tobacco company found that 40 percent of its contractor farms employed underage workers, therefore violating the Federal law on child labor, including 16 percent of minors under the age of 16 who were illegally performing hazardous work.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC), says he’s not surprised by the audit results.

“We’ve been telling the company for eight years now that there are serious labor violations happening all over Southern tobacco fields, including on Reynolds farms. Imagine what the audits would have found if they were allowed to talk to more workers and ask more in depth questions about the workers’ experiences,” said Velasquez. “Rather than working with us to solve the issues, Reynolds has continuously denied that these conditions exist and has tried to sweep labor issues under the rug.”

The big tobacco companies promised in 2014 to stop hiring people under the age of 16, but since it’s not an actual priority, it’s not happening. This is in our own backyard and is completely unacceptable. A Human Rights Watch report brought attention to the problem in 2014, leading to the companies’ promises. But since then, it hasn’t received much publicity.

Book Review: Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History

[ 22 ] May 4, 2016 |

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Scenes on a Cotton Plantation: Hoeing, engraving from Harper’s Weekly, February 2, 1867

Sven Beckert’s Bancroft Prize-winning book is a brilliant as advertised. He explores the history of cotton production to demonstrate how Europeans took control of a crop that grew widely around the world but not in Europe and used it to promote global expansion through state-sponsored violence and control over labor. In doing so, Beckert weaves together the experiences of peoples around the world and builds connections between the past and present.

For Beckert, the entire process of cotton expansion, industrialization, and the cotton fields and apparel industry to the present is backed with horrifying violence. Cotton grows in many forms around the world’s tropics. From Mexico to India, it has served as the basis of household economies for thousands of years, through weaving and spinning. But what he calls “war capitalism” changed this. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, European nations and the United States went to war to violently open lands for cotton production. Within the United States, this was the wars on Native Americans in the South that led to the Trail of Tears. The trans-Atlantic slave trade violently provided the labor for these cotton agriculture. Conquest in India and Egypt was influenced by the insatiable desire for cotton.

The growing power of the state allowed this expansion to happen. As we can see throughout the history of capitalism, talk of “free enterprise” covered up the central hand of the state in shaping markets, ensuring compliant labor, passing tariffs to protect domestic industry, and going to war to find new cotton lands or bring the world’s labor within a cotton regime. War capitalism became industrial capitalism after the conquest of land and people. The state grew to facilitate this industrial capitalism, with state power backing capitalist expansion throughout the globe.

As an Americanist, Beckert naturally enough sees the Civil War as a transitional point in the history of cotton, but in a very different way than a U.S.-centric book. With Europe largely reliant upon U.S. cotton by 1861, the Civil War placed those nations in a real crisis. The U.S. was producing so much cotton that there was a large surplus, delaying the crisis. But mills across France, Germany and especially Britain closed by 1863. By early 1862, cotton imports to Britain were down 50 percent in total, 96 percent from the United States. The state was there to help solve these problems. Britain especially sought to produce more cotton in India and Egypt. India had long produced much cotton, but largely persisted in its pre-colonial household production traditions, largely for domestic production, which consistently frustrated the British. Egypt began ramping up its cotton production, while nations such as Mexico added to the global cotton supply as well. American diplomats sought to promote cotton production around the globe as well, for they knew that if cotton supplies grew, the agitation in Britain to recognize the Confederacy would decline, as it did once the crisis passed.

Reconstruction forced American cotton farmers to figure out new ways of controlling labor to grow cotton, but this was not strictly an American process either. Rather, in his chapter titled “Global Reconstruction,” Beckert demonstrates how the process to rethink cotton labor was global and necessary for the Euro-American industrial societies reliant upon cotton production to feed their own working classes. Various forms of labor replaced chattel slavery. Sharecropping in the American South and Brazil became common. In Egypt, both sharecroppers and small owners provided family based labor. But the independence of these local economies was large gone. Instead, these farmers were now enmeshed in a system of global capitalism that often kept them in debt through sharecropping, crop liens, and merchants. This eventually led to a flood of cotton pouring into European nations. While Beckert doesn’t explicitly address this, it’s long been my contention that while the British were happy to continue using slave-made cotton from the South, it would have expanded production in the colonies even without the Civil War in order to lower the cost. Were that to have happened, the independent Confederacy may well have seen the price of its economic staple collapse and become unsustainable as an independent nation. Of course, this is conjecture and has little place in a history book, except to note that the British had long wanted to get more cotton out of India but found itself frustrated by local resistance.

By the late 19th century, the rise of imperialism became closely connected to cotton production, with European states binding the world together in an ever more intensive attempt to acquire cheap cotton. Perhaps most notorious was the Germans bringing experts from the Tuskegee Institute, some of whom were ex-slaves themselves, to its colony in Togo in order to find ways to force peoples there to grow for the German market, as Europeans states were doing throughout Africa and south Asia. The French forced peasants to grow cotton under state supervision in Côte d’Ivoire, as did the Belgians in the Congo.

Conditions in the apparel factories of Europe and the United States were hardly better than the fields of Togo or Alabama. Like today, cotton manufacturers loved to exploit young girls and the state went to great lengths to provide that labor. Beckert tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Mary Hootton, working in a Manchester factory, who we only know of because she was chosen to testify before a British investigative commission in 1833. Her life was brutal, with beatings at home and two years in the factories already, where she would be punished for being late to work by having a 20 pound weight put around her little neck and being forced to walk around the mill while the other children made fun of her. States created legal frameworks for wage labor that could include imprisonment for leaving work without permission in Prussia or for breaking a labor contract in England. Less directly, the increased inability to make a living through household manufacturing, often due to states forcing open markets for cotton exports, forced workers into the brutal factory world of Mary Hootton. Whether in Manchester, South Carolina, Mexico, Japan, Switzerland, or Bangladesh, household workers have found their ability to maintain household production overturned by global capitalism in the last 200 years and their states have ensured access to cheap and pliable labor, with force to back up industry if necessary.

In today’s globalized cotton capitalism, how much has changed? Although Beckert covers the recent past and present relatively briefly, the answer for him, as it is for myself, is not as much as you would think. Today, cotton production is still a system of rampant exploitation, where children are forced into the fields in Uzbekistan and where factories collapse and kill over 1100 workers in Bangladesh, with the American companies contracting production there and therefore playing a huge role in creating this system facing no accountability. Meanwhile, the cotton industrial towns of the global north are gone and largely replaced by nothing, as one can see in towns around southern New England like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Fall River. The state still shapes cotton today, whether through forced labor, union-busting, or cotton growing subsidies in the United States. The current system of globalized labor exploitation in the cotton and apparel industry is not some great opportunity for the Bangladeshi and Chinese poor but rather part of the same system of capitalist cotton that in its previous iterations committed genocide against Native Americans, vastly expanded chattel slavery, and oppressed factory workers in Europe and the U.S.

While the writing is more adequate than literary, Empire of Cotton is definitely accessible to the general reader. You all should read it if you want a truly global history that will change the way you look at both the past and the globalized economy of the present.

Quality Reviewing

[ 12 ] May 4, 2016 |

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The best book reviews are as much about the review author as the book being reviewed while at the same time being fair to the book. That’s what I strive for when I review, although probably with mixed success. Anyway, I thought of this when reading Rich Yeselson’s review of the new Tamara Draut book Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America.

The ironic truth is that when labor is strong, it doesn’t need the state to intervene so much on its behalf. That’s why labor leaders in the 1950s, like Steelworkers legal counsel and later Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg believed, naïvely if understandably, that labor did best when the courts and legislatures left it alone to resolve differences with management. But when labor is weak, as it is now, it lacks the political and economic juice required to win its own battles, much less to pass remedial legislation on its own behalf.

EFCA was worth a try, but there was never a chance that unions were going to persuade pro-business Democratic senators in low-union-density states like Louisiana, Virginia, Nebraska, let alone Arkansas, to vote against the pathological hatred of their business donors for unions, and support a law that would have made it easier to organize. A more promising avenue to assist passage of such a bill, when political conditions allow it, would be to continue to pressure Democrats to abolish the super-majority filibuster.

Throughout the book, Draut returns to what is her greatest fear—that despite the encouraging signs that this new working class is on the move, she is not certain “whether the racial, ethnic, and gender divides that have impeded solidarity can finally be dismantled.” She notes that polling shows that the less financially secure are the most worried about the economic impact of immigration. She accuses Republicans of having “deliberately used race to pursue their broader objectives of shrinking government and deregulating the economy.”

She is right to be worried. And she wrote this book before the rise of Donald Trump. We understand now, if we didn’t before, how significant it is that the social democracies of Western Europe were constructed when their populations were almost entirely homogeneous. Today, right-wing parties in several countries, with much stronger labor movements than that of the U.S., wish to maintain nativist social welfare states and reject a broader social solidarity. In the United States, we know from the rage so many white working-class people have toward Obamacare—even some who have benefited from it!—that the historical weight of racial and ethno-nationalism is a great burden. Donald Trump’s campaign for president is an effect, not a cause, of this widespread ethno-nationalism of white workers who, justifiably, think they’ve been screwed, but see people of color not as colleagues and collaborators but as the cause of their distress. Draut reminds us time and again that a solidarity is painstakingly being built, but from a movement of the new working class that is “primarily, but not entirely, of people of color and immigrants.” It has the support of what I have called the new “laborism” of mostly white, college-educated union staffers and other urban, professional leftists, but less so of the white working class itself.

One of the biggest problems in writing on the left is what we might call the “predictive hope fallacy,” where writers so want a future (or sometimes a past) to be better than the present that sometimes the rational analysis goes out the window to write some sort of inspiring conclusion that will supposedly show how everything is going to work out. I actively tried to avoid this in Out of Sight by grounding my ideas in the proven (if limited) effectiveness of regulatory and export law and creating citizen access to already existing institutions like the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts. One can question whether my ideas are also too optimistic, but that was the goal anyway. I’m certainly not saying that Draut does that, despite the grandiose title, because I haven’t read the book yet. But Yeselson definitely doesn’t go down that road, which is why some of the left dislike him. Both Draut and Yeselson are right to think about the real limitations to working-class solidarity, when the white working class has so supported the xenophobic fascism of Trump.

In any case, a lot of chew on in the review and likely the Draut book.

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